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House committee OKs GOP report ending Russia meddling probe

UPDATED: Thu., March 22, 2018

The doors to a secure are where the House Intelligence Committee meets are shut as the GOP majority prepares to end its participation in the Russia probe, officially shutting down the panel's investigation, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 22, 2018. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
The doors to a secure are where the House Intelligence Committee meets are shut as the GOP majority prepares to end its participation in the Russia probe, officially shutting down the panel's investigation, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, March 22, 2018. (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
By Mary Clare Jalonick Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The House intelligence committee voted Thursday to approve its final report into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, ending its inquiry and giving a final endorsement to the GOP conclusion there was no coordination between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.

The full Republican-written report will be released to the public after intelligence agencies conduct a classification review, which could take weeks.

The document is likely to please Trump but is fiercely opposed by committee Democrats, all of whom voted against approving it. The Democrats say the investigation was shut down too quickly and that the committee has not interviewed enough witnesses or gathered enough evidence to make such a definitive assessment.

After the vote, Republicans released a summary of 44 findings, including conclusions that there were Russian cyberattacks on U.S. political institutions and that Russians leveraged social media in the U.S. to sow discord. The report echoes GOP criticism of the Justice Department and intelligence agencies.

On the subject of collusion, the report says that “when asked directly, none of the interviewed witnesses provided evidence of collusion, coordination or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.” The Republicans say they found no evidence that Trump’s “pre-campaign business dealings” formed any basis for collusion.

The report also appears to try and clear numerous Trump associates from wrongdoing.

The GOP document says there’s no evidence Trump associates had anything to do with hacked emails stolen from Democrats during the campaign, though it does mention “numerous ill-advised contacts with WikiLeaks.” The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., messaged with WikiLeaks during the campaign.

An assessment released in January 2017 by U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian military intelligence provided hacked information from the Democratic National Committee and Democratic officials to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks has denied that Russia was the source of emails it released.

The report also concludes there’s no evidence Trump Jr. discussed the election with a Russian official he met at a National Rifle Association meeting in 2016, and says the younger Trump and other campaign officials did not receive any derogatory information about Democrat Hillary Clinton at a June 2016 meeting with Russians in Trump Tower. Emails showed that Trump Jr. and others attended that meeting with the expectation of receiving such information.

The committee concluded that meetings between the Russian ambassador in Washington and Trump campaign officials, including now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, did not represent coordination with Russia in any way. Sessions was also interviewed by the committee.

The report addresses “possible Russian efforts to set up a ‘back channel“’ with Trump associates after the campaign and implies it couldn’t have been nefarious. The Republicans say that if that did happen, it suggests “the absence of collusion during the campaign, since the communication associated with collusion would have rendered such a ‘back channel’ unnecessary.”

On Carter Page, a onetime Trump campaign official who was the subject of a disputed secret surveillance warrant, the committee concluded that a July 2016 trip to Moscow wasn’t on behalf of the Trump campaign. But the findings say the committee is “concerned about his seemingly incomplete accounts of his activity in Moscow.”

Texas Rep. Mike Conaway, the Republican leading the House investigation, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the committee wanted to get the report out as the 2018 campaign season begins.

On collusion and coordination, Conaway said, “We could not find a thread to follow that made sense.”

After the committee vote, the top Democrat, California Rep. Adam Schiff, said he had hoped Thursday’s closed-door meeting could have been public.

“It is a rather sad chapter in our committee’s long history with the ending of the majority’s participation in the investigation, that ending taking place in secret session for no reason at all except a desire to avoid public scrutiny of this decision, to curtail an investigation into one of the most serious intrusions into our democracy and our history,” Schiff said.

Democrats will have their own report and say they will continue to investigate the meddling. They have already set up at least one interview: Chris Wylie, a former employee of a political data-mining firm that obtained information from Facebook users without their consent. The firm, Cambridge Analytica, worked for the Trump campaign.

The GOP report also targets the Obama administration, saying officials did not notify the Trump campaign that people associated with it “were assessed to be potential counterintelligence concerns.”

Trump campaign officials identified by intelligence agencies included Page and George Papadopoulos, who has pleaded guilty in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation to lying about his foreign contacts. The report blames those hires on “the Republican national security establishment’s opposition to candidate Trump” for “creating opportunities for two less-experienced individuals with pro-Russia views to serve as campaign advisers.”

The Republicans target leaks of classified information before and especially after the election, saying they have potentially endangered lives. It recommends mandatory polygraphs for some people with top secret clearances.

In addition, the report targets intelligence agencies for not using “proper analytic tradecraft” to assess Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions in its postelection report. Conaway said last week that investigators had reviewed raw intelligence data and do not believe Putin wanted to help Trump. Conaway later clarified that evidence shows that Putin did want to hurt Clinton in the election.

The House Republicans also criticized the FBI for failing to notify targets of Russian espionage, saying the bureau’s efforts to alert Americans caught in the hackers’ crosshairs had been “largely inadequate.”

The criticism comes after the AP revealed that only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of Americans singled out by Russian hackers had received any kind of heads up from the bureau – despite the FBI long having had details of the digital spying campaign.

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